Six grueling demographic indicators of Detroit’s decline (and some pictures)

You don’t have to be an expert on the collapse of Detroit, which I’m not, to know it’s really bad. In fact, does modern world history include any other city once this big (1.87 million at its peak) losing two-thirds of its population?

And you don’t have to be an expert in social policy, which I’m not, to know that the United States wouldn’t let this happen if it cared.

Detroit’s condition has bobbed into the national news now and then. There was a flurry of reporting on the infant mortality rate, which hit 15 per 1,000 live births in 2012, higher than any other U.S. city, according to Kids Count. Reporters then observed the odds of surviving to age 1 are better in Thailand, Mexico, or China. The better comparison is to urban areas rather than whole countries. Detroit’s infant mortality is more than three-times the rate in urban Cuba or Poland, or London; twice the rate of urban El Salvador, Bulgaria, Chile, or Moscow; and a little higher than urban Azerbaijan.

Here are six more demographic indicators of the condition of Detroit, from data collected by the Census Bureau*, and then a few pictures.

1. Population decline

This is it, in a nutshell:


A drop in population of 64% since 1950, during which time the city’s population shifted from 16% Black to more than 80% Black. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist, which I’m not, to suspect this is not a coincidence.

Of course, Detroit isn’t the only city to fall on hard times. But there’s nothing like this. Here’s that drop in percentage terms since 2000, with the other big cities for comparison:


2, 3. Young adults not in school or employed, and births to unmarried young women

I put these indicators together because they are so closely intertwined:


Detroit’s unmarried women under age 25 have birth rates more than ten-times higher than those in San Francisco or Seattle, and more than twice as high as those in Chicago or Philadelphia. The percentage of young adults in Detroit that are neither employed nor in school is four-times higher than in San Francisco or Seattle, and 9-points higher than the closest city, Cleveland. The exclusion or isolation from the institutions of school and employment is both cause and effect of high birth rates for young, unmarried adults. (Of course, the long-run collapse of the city cannot have been caused by young adults’ fertility behavior.)

4, 5. Marriage and divorce

Chronic economic hardship and uncertainty both limit options for long-term partners and stress existing marriages. Detroit has the lowest marriage rates, and the highest divorce rates, of all the major cities I could include:


6. Early widowhood

For people who get married and don’t divorce, widowhood is inevitable. If widowhood at young ages is common, besides the heartache of the loss itself, it undermines the perception of security associated with marriage. At least I expect it would.

We can calculate widowhood rates using the American Community Survey, which asks each person surveyed whether they were widowed in the previous year, in a sample large enough to assess widowhood by age in major cities (this great data collection is unfortunately set to be cancelled: please see here.)

Early widowhood has no formal definition, so I arbitrarily chose ages 40-59:


The early widowhood rate in Detroit is more than five-times greater than San Francisco’s, and it’s substantially higher than the rates in other, more demographically similar, cities as well.

In pictures

So, from the demographer’s sanitized, data-driven vantage point Detroit’s collapse is excruciating enough. To get deeper you could read many books, with titles including The Origins of the Urban CrisisThe Last Days of Detroit, and Detroit: An American Autopsy, or “Detroit’s wealth of ruins” in Contexts. And of course you could go to Detroit, if you’re not there already.

But thanks to the amazing investment of capital and creative technological innovation that Google has put into Street View (but which there’s apparently not enough of in the world to get Detroit back on its feet), you can drive your web browser around the streets and see for yourself.

Google even allows you to see multiple images of the same location from different passes of the Street View Car. So I was able to look up houses in Detroit available for sale at $1, and then turn back the clock to see their environs up to four years earlier. Here are some of the results. Each of these is a series of three images, from 2009, 2011, and 2013.

Site 1


In 2009: neat houses, well-tended lawns. The one on the left does have plywood over the side window.


In 2011, there’s been a fire in one, but the others look occupied.


By 2013, the burned out house has been partially boarded up. Now the one on the left looks empty — open windows and door, the gutter has been stripped, and the lawn is overgrown.

Site 2


A charming site in 2009, with no apparent distress.


Two fires later, in 2011, it’s a different story.


And by 2013 the block is on its way to wildlife reclamation, though the residents in the first house may be holding on.

Site 3


Finally, a site that is in bad shape already by 2009. The one on the left still has a grill on the porch and trash cans, and the grass has been cut, but those open windows aren’t good.


By 2011 they’re both boarded up. And now the porch lumber on the left has been stripped, as has the metalwork from the porch on the right.


The 2013 photo shows the houses have been un-boarded. Not much left here.


The photos here are not original or deeply revealing. If anything, they illustrate how easy it would be for anyone actually interested in this outsized human catastrophe to observe it unfolding.

The demographic data set the context for life in Detroit. Rates of population decline, social isolation, divorce, and widowhood are observable and become part of the consciousness of the population. These harsh demographic facts are sort of like living next to an abandoned, burned out house. They’re warnings about the uncertainty of the future as well as the hardships of the present. (How those warnings affect social life and interaction, how they are internalized, is something we should study more.)

In light of these potent markers of social crisis — so obvious to so many people who live in Detroit — the willful lack of attention or compassion from the U.S. government, and the obliviousness of the mainstream culture, must feel as cold as it looks. With what consequence? Not to over-dramatize — well, to over-dramatize — but it’s almost like leaving a Black body in the street for four hours, and then feigning surprise when someone accuses you of not caring about his human life and death.

* Data note: These calculations require analyzing microdata from the American Community Survey. Usually I use metropolitan areas, which include central cities and their linked suburbs. But for this I’m using the IPUMS city categories, constructed from Census geographic codes, because the city is the story. The data matches aren’t perfect, and some cities aren’t included (such as Houston and Dallas), and I’m not expert on Census geography, but I looked at this enough to be confident I’m not missing anything that would disturb these patterns much.

26 thoughts on “Six grueling demographic indicators of Detroit’s decline (and some pictures)

  1. What the reporters needed to do if they were dead set on measuring DOOM by infant mortality rate was compare Detroit’s to that of a city with similar racial makeup and reporting. Instead, they compared a heavily African American city to 1) a bunch of cities with shoddy or nonstandard reporting of infant mortality (many countries do not use the strict standard the US uses) and 2) a bunch of cities with few people of African descent, who have more complicated births and more prematurity thanks to genetics. Not saying the effect they’re looking for isn’t there, just that the comparison is off.


  2. Detroit is just the logical end result of progressive government. Solid, sane, self-supporting people take their kids and their capital and flee. What would you expect?


    1. What does “progressive” have to do with it? It is a non sequitur with the following two sentences, which stand well on their own.


  3. Some mention should be made of the role high taxes played in the decline of Detroit. Direct taxes in Detroit are at the State maximum and augmented by hidden taxes and fees, notably the obscene water rates. Taxes and fees on a typical house in Detroit run to about 25 – 30% of its value per year. This onerous tax burden encourages abandonment, which is soon followed by squatting.

    Abandoned houses pay no taxes, diminishing the revenue available for public services. Squatters have little connection to the health car system, increasing infant mortality and early widowhood. Marriage really isn’t viable when you are squatting.

    Detroit is trapped in a death spiral and its bankruptcy only addressed the immediate problems of the municipal government. All indications are that the Detroit city government is casting around for additional tax revenues and fees. This will not end well.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Why should Detroit be given more money? Most of out state is already starved of funds as most spending and government energy flows to the city. Perhaps the bankruptcy and reorganization will bring benefit but the rest of the state should not be penalized any more for Detroit’s excesses and failures.


  4. The main reason I moved from Detroit in 1967 was the fact that my cousin, with whom I was very close, moved to Westland and a new home. My husband and I settled in Garden City a mile from my cousin’s house. Most of the homes on our street were new with young couples starting families. My uncles still lived in our old house on Martin St. The house which was built by my great-grandfather in the 1800’s. By the way, it is still standing and has been beautifully renovated by a Spanish family.
    My high school years at Chadsey High School were some of the best years of my life. After attending a Catholic elementary school, a public high school was a brand new experience to say the least. I became friends with non-Catholics and fellow students of different races. I NEVER felt afraid of anyone at school. We respected each other and liked each other.
    Now, as my husband and I travel east on Michigan Avenue to downtown, I have to admit, I feel the heaviness in my heart as I view the ravaged homes and businesses in my old neighborhood.
    What is the explanation for this blight. What has happened???
    The church is still standing, yet, two blocks away is a gaudy strip joint. It reminds me of the scene in the movie,”It’s A Wonderul Life”, when George Bailey discovers what has happened to his town without his presence.
    There are so many decent, hard working folks living in Detroit and my heart goes out to them for they take the rap for the criminal element.
    Those who have governed Detroit have done a rotten job through the years. Most of them were looking out for themselves at any cost.
    They respected no one. They let the “bad guys” take over and a few of them were the “bad guys”.
    My five children were taught to respect everyone and I take pride in the fact thay they do. Rspect begins in the home.
    There is no easy solution to the problems of Detroit. Perhaps a miracle will occur and the right people shall govern once more. I will not hold my breath.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. “No, encourage people and companies to stay or move in through large-scale public investment.”

    This comment typifies the classic big-government, neo-liberal disease; that somehow hosing a problem with money can accomplish positive results. We’ve been forced to listen to this tripe for forty years and it still isn’t working.

    Your articles are well written and present articulate references and data but you seem to have no coherent solutions to the issues you present.


  6. What happened to Detroit was that it became a one-industry town and abandoned all creative enterprise. Prior to the rise of the automobile industry, Detroit had many small enterprises making engines and ships, but they were folded into the vertically integrated automobile industry. This kind of behemoth industry is not nimble enough to respond to market changes. And since there were no new businesses in the pipeline, when the market changed with competition from the Japanese and the Germans, the industry toppled and there was nothing to replace it. Detroit seems to be trying to get some of the entrepreneurial energy back.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. After WWII, Detroit had state-of-the-art automobile factories. Thirty years later, however, instead of re-investing in those factories, the auto companies (and everybody else) was into diversification, buying up other business – or conspicuous consumption and high salaries for management.

    While Detroit, and Pittsburgh’s steel industry, and other areas where it really makes SENSE that we produce goods with metal – because we have the metal and we have the water to move it around on (it’s very heavy) and we have the fuel – were twiddling their thumbs and buying office buildings in Houston, JAPAN was investing in NEW factories.

    Now, it turns out that in the steel industry – of all our once premiere industries – the greatest cost is …. NOT labor. It’s heating the steel. Our WWII steel factories heated the steel up 5, 6, 7 times. And that was expensive.

    The new Japanese factories only heated the steel up ONCE. A tremendous saving, as you can well imagine. So – it wasn’t unions. It wasn’t the cost of labor. It was sheer stupidity on the part of those in charge of running our steel industry – they did not put enough capital back into the business, they did not refit or rebuild the plants to meet INNOVATION, and they priced themselves out of business. (But the unions were blamed.)

    I don’t know as much about the auto industry, but my bet is they were doing the same thing. One thing I do know – the first car I ever bought was a Dodge Aspen – inheritor of the slant-six engine. What could be a safer bet? Well, the day after we bought it, the steering column caught on fire (we only saw smoke. It was a small fire. But the car had to be towed back to the dealer). The rear door had to be replaced because the window got stuck. We had (foolishly) bought a standard – the transmission somehow got messed up and we had to have it replaced. That took six months (at least we got a loaner). At the end of six months, when I drove out of the dealer’s with my car supposedly all new again, the linkage came out in my hand! They hadn’t put the pin in that would hold it together. Let’s see – oh, the rear end fell out. And the alternator had to be replaced.

    ALL IN THE FIRST TWELVE MONTHS. Before we got rid of that lemon, the rear end had to be replaced two more times! One mechanic showed my husband that the car had obviously come down the line misaligned, and they had just sort of shoved it together. (I had a friend who bought the matching Plymouth and when she went to check the oil, there was no place to do it – there was no hole for the dipstick to go into. They later found the dipstick thrown under the front seat.)

    So – not sure what they weren’t doing to keep up with innovation, but I am sure that they weren’t paying a heck of a lot of attention to what was going on in those factories.

    So – there were other things at play too in all the original railroad nexus-waterfront cities, including zoning that made it cheaper to rip up good farmland and turn it into more suburbs – and the rise of the automobile, so that the ideal city no longer had high density in the center, when railroads and streetcars ruled – they were more spread out. Too much housing in the center of the city, then. But unwanted buildings are not like a shirt that’s out of style – they tend to stick around long after they fit demand. And what you saw in those pictures was attrition when there were just more houses than were wanted – perhaps they could have taken whole neighborhoods and turned them into parks – I really don’t know – but the phrase “white flight” was not quite accurate – everybody moves out of the city in a generation or two; they’re replaced by new migrants. New migrants weren’t coming in – that was the difference. There was too much housing, too much unwanted space.

    You would have had the problem of too much housing even had the factories been kept up – but they weren’t. They closed, one by one – and they didn’t have to. It’s just that … not enough people cared. Hubris, conviction that we’ll always be on top, dollop of sheer stupidity.

    And on the subject of not enough people cared (and stupidity) – how is it going in Flint these days? Have they got that pipeline built to the Lake?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Mary, I REALLY enjoyed your comments and insight. If you had a blog, I’d follow it…and I rarely subscribe to blogs.


  8. I lived in the Detroit metropolitan area from 1988-1996; worked in Detroit the entire time. Each successive year, we moved further and further away. The culture of the city was awful. City governance was either ineffective or corrupt; often both. Coleman Young embraced a racialized view of his world, consolidating power but which drove white people out of the city.

    He was Mayor for 20 years, with each new year worse than the previous. You can only blame the voters, though, for it was clear who they were electing and they continued to do so. Following him was Dennis Archer – nice guy, but ineffective. Then the people of Detroit put Kwame Kilpatrick in as Mayor, who again followed the Coleman Young tradition, this time with personal corruption in addition to divisiveness. Nice job, voters.

    Detroit isn’t a story of lack of investment; it is a story of ineffective and divisive leadership combined with a decline in societal norms.


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